A proposed change in how Nebraska sets aside land for conservation ran into opposition at the Capitol Tuesday.
The proposal is by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill. It would affect grants by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, funded by lottery profits, to groups like Ducks Unlimited or the Nature Conservancy that purchase land.
If those groups then sell the land to the federal government, that takes it off the property tax rolls. Larson’s bill would require that the groups would have to come up with a way to replace those property taxes. The Environmental Trust currently puts such a requirement in its contracts with groups.
Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton suggested that putting the requirement in the law could be too rigid. "We have allowed or provided for flexibility for the Trust board to give them the latitude that they may need to address each grant on its individual merits," Dubas said. "When we start putting things into statute, that takes some of that flexibility away. Do you feel like we could create more problems than we would solve by doing this?" she asked Larson.
Larson defended his proposal. "My concern is that Environmental Trust boards change over the years, because it is an appointed position by the governor. And with those changing boards, these good practices that the current Trust board has seen fit to include in the contracts could possibly change," he said.
Other senators expressed concern that conservation groups could buy land with help from the Environmental Trust and then turn around and sell it to the federal government for a profit. Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege said "I think it’s okay to send a message to people: Be careful about using the Environmental Trust to line your own pockets."
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery questioned the requirement of providing for replacement property taxes, if the Environmental Trust were to provide grants to a local government unit, like a Natural Resource District, or NRD. He gave the example of an NRD in the Republican River Basin getting a Trust grant to retire acres in order to comply with the Republican River Compact. If the NRD wanted to transfer land to the Bureau of Reclamation or to the Corps of Engineers to manage the project, the NRD would have to pay taxes to the county, he said. "We would have one government agency paying another government agency. I find that to be just a little awkward and unusual," he said.
As debate continued into the late afternoon, senators adopted an amendment to take public entities out of the requirement to come up with money to replace lost property taxes. They then returned to debate on the bill itself, but adjourned before a first-round vote.